Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Walking Dead, Authorial Intent, and Why I Need to Go to Grad School

The "Why I Need to Go to Grad School" part is because this post is not very well structured, and I'm not sure if I prove all (or any) or my points.

**Disclaimer: Walking Dead spoilers (the comic) ahoy!**

I read the first several volumes of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead a few years ago. I stopped reading them because they were sexist/racist drek. Unfortunately, I can't really remember the specifics. I know there were very clear instances of sexism and racism, but I can't argue the point because I don't remember. I DO remember, that in the "letters" page, in which fans write to author Robert Kirkman and he responds, Kirkman was TOTALLY dismissive of all accusations. HE wasn't being racist. HE was just showing reality and racism exists in reality. The only black woman in the series just *happens* to get raped. HE wasn't even thinking about the fact that she's black. YOU must be racist for even thinking that!

Now, I'm not an artist. I can't say what kind of moral responsibility and artist does or doesn't have. But I think that an artist ought to engage his or her audience. And I think an artist can NOT deny someone's reading of his or her art - regardless of the intent.

Is it racist for a black character to get raped? Not necessarily. But as fenzel on my new favorite blog Overthinking It writes, "no one character, no one statement, no one discrete thing, is ever 'feminist' or 'anti-feminist' (or even 'sexist' [or racist. -R.]). What is feminist or anti-feminist is the way we include how we talk about and associate discrete things in a broader discourse, and then what that has to do with how some actual group of people thinks, acts and behaves." Now I have been told that some of the female characters in The Walking Dead get a lot more, well, character later on in the series. But up until that point, all the women were defined in relation to the men. (Again, I can't give examples because I don't remember specifics.) In comic books of the superhero genre, an overwhelming number of women are killed, raped, tortured, and/or de-powered - often in a sexualized manner. So in the context of comic books, and within the world of The Walking Dead, I think that it is absolutely racist and sexist for the only black woman to be raped and tortured.

Do bad things happen to the white characters and male characters, too? Yes. Am I a racist for thinking that Michonne's rape is not unrelated to her being black? No. Are there racist and sexist men out there? Yes. In the introduction to her book Reel to real: race, sex, and class at the movies, bell hooks writes
Movies make magic. They change things. They take the real and make it into something else right before our very eyes. Usually when I critique a movie lots of folks like, they tell me, "It was just showing the way things are. It was real." And they do not want to hear it when I make the point that giving audiences what is real is precisely what movies do not do. They give the reimagined, reinvented version of the real. It may look like something familiar, but in actuality it is a different universe from the world of the real. That's what makes movies so compelling.
I would argue that the same goes for comic books and any other form of popular art entertainment. If we accept that Robert Kirkman is giving us a world with zombies, then we accept that he is not giving us reality. It is his reimagining of a reality (with zombies). And this reimagining of his, women are not defined outside of their relationships to men. And the one black woman, the "warrior woman," gets raped.


Jammer said...

I consider myself a feminist and multicuturalist, but what -- would it have been fine for a white male character to be raped and tortured? (The story later threatens the rape of a young boy at one point.)

The character you're talking about is the strongest woman character in the book, as well. But maybe that's a stereotype, as well.

There's nothing wrong with being turned off by a book that depicts rape, dismemberment and flesh-eating semihuman monsters. But without specifics (especially from the letters pages discussing various points), I can't even begin to say the book is racist or sexist.

R. said...

No, it wouldn't be fine for a white male - or anyone - to be raped and tortured. But it isn't fine with me for violence against women to be sexualized.

In any case, what ultimately turned me off the most was Kirkman's reaction to his fans. If an artist offends someone - even and especially unintentionally - I find it extremely disrespectful and just plain tactless for the artist to tell the reader that his or her reading is invalid.

I am strongly considering revisiting the series (albeit as a resistant reader) so I can actually discuss the issues instead of just saying "All I remember is that it was offensive." I am just loath to do so because I would so much rather spend my time finding comics I enjoy.

(Sorry for my belated reply - I only just noticed the comment. Thanks for reading!)

Jon said...

Read your blog, follow your twitter and no, I'm not a spam-bot...

But, if you are considering grad school, especially for writing, I highly recommend looking into Wilkes University's Creative Writing program.

You may be interested in several of the faculty (all full time writers) with whom you would be working...

Just my 2 cents...

Good blog, by the way.

R. said...

Thanks, Jon!